Recently, I received an email from Nicole, a reader who works for a local Chamber of Commerce. Her boss was on the radio expecting to face questions about one topic—but the host had a different idea. She writes:
“We had a recent experience where our Chamber president was asked to participate in a live radio interview about our economic development program. Instead, he was asked numerous questions about a proposed rate hike by our city-owned utility—an issue which we are not the appropriate spokesperson for. Ultimately, our president did a good job not speaking on behalf of the utility and there was no fallout, but it was an uncomfortable situation that was particularly difficult since it was happening live. I was just curious as to how you would handle that type of situation?”
It sounds like Nicole’s president handled it perfectly. But to elaborate on her question a bit more, spokespersons generally have three options when a reporter asks a question that falls outside of their realm of expertise.
Option No. 1: Answer the question
The most straightforward option is to answer the question, even if it’s outside of the spokesperson’s expertise. This approach is fraught with danger, since the spokesperson is now on the record speaking on behalf of a different agency.
Even if the spokesperson handles the question well, what good will it do if the headline of the interview becomes about that other
topic? It means that your main messages—the things you most
wanted the public to know about you—got lost in the shuffle.
Option No. 2: Answer the question, but within your own context
Occasionally, you might choose to answer questions about unrelated topics, but only within the specific context of how that topic affects you or your work. This approach allows you to “stay in your lane” while offering the audience (and reporter) something
For example, the Chamber president might have said:
“I can’t comment on the rate increase broadly, but let me tell you what our members have said. They’ve said that increases in energy costs will lead to either laying people off or freezing hiring. We all understand that energy prices have to go up on occasion, but local businesses have told me they believe this is a bad time to do it.”
This option isn’t fraught with as much danger as the first one, and it may occasionally be the right approach. But it also increases your odds that the quote the audience remembers from your interview will be about a utility increase—which may or may not be the headline you wanted.
Option No. 3: Deflect and refuse the question
This one is pretty straightforward. You can just tell the reporter:
“You know, that’s really a question that’s more appropriate for the utility company to answer. I haven’t had the opportunity to study their full proposal yet, and would be uncomfortable commenting on the rate increase. What I can discuss today is rising costs for local businesses in general, and how it’s affecting their hiring practices. Those rising costs may include energy prices, but they also include tax increases, increasing fuel costs, and many other items businesses need to purchase to succeed…”
This option is often the safest, but the audience may hold your president’s refusal to answer basic questions against him. Ultimately, options two or three are the best bets, depending on the question and its relevance to the Chamber’s work.
Brad Phillips is the author of the Mr. Media Training Blog and president of Phillips Media Relations, which specializes in media and presentation training.
He tweets at @MrMediaTraining.